As Prime Minister Narendra Modi stayed away this year, India followed a strategy of quiet diplomacy while projecting its soft power at the world body, even as it suffered a setback in the fight against terrorism….writes Arul Louis
A.R. Rahman’s concert commemorating that of M.S. Subbulakshmi at the UN 50 years ago was the highlight of a series of events this year promoting India’s cultural influence. The Oscar-winner’s tribute to the “Queen of Music” in August was an evocation of universal harmony, blending traditions, time, faiths and languages at the General Assembly chamber in a show of 21st century pizzazz.
On Gandhi Jayanti — October 2 — which is commemorated at the UN as the International Day of Nonviolence, the UN postal service released a commemorative stamp in Subbulakshmi’s honour.
India had a low profile on the diplomatic front that masked a lot of behind-the-scenes diplomacy.
After having made a trip to Washington to address the Congress, Modi did not attend the annual general debate of the General Assembly that brings together heads of state and government from the 193 members of the UN.
New Delhi’s strategy of quiet diplomacy started outside the UN at the Nonaligned Summit in Venezuela held just before the General Assembly session in September. (Modi did not attend that either.)
The trio of Vice President Hamid Ansari, Minister of State for External Affairs M.J. Akbar and Permanent Representative Syed Akbaruddin began the diplomatic drive there to boost India’s influence as an emerging economic and political power and to neutralise Pakistan’s bid to rake up the Kashmir issue.
It was carried forward by Akbar and Akbaruddin to the General Assembly’s general debate that followed in New York. Over a week they met scores of world leaders and the various geographic, political and economic groups before External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj came to deliver India’s speech at the general debate on its last day.
As a result, support for India’s bid for a permanent seat in the Security Council was solidified among key groups of nations, the universal risks from terrorism was highlighted and Pakistan was isolated on Kashmir.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was left plodding on a lonely road among nations more concerned about terrorism.
Ninety per cent of the speakers mentioned terrorism, but none, except Sharif, talked of Kashmir, Akbaruddin pointed out and asked: “Diplomacy is the art of the possible; are you seeing any other countries raising the issues Pakistan has?”
After Sharif’s general debate speech glorifying Burhan Muzaffar Wani, a commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, Eenam Gambhir, a young diplomat at the Indian mission, hammered Pakistan’s association with terrorism in a reply that made her a mini-celebrity in India.
“The land of Taxila, one of the greatest learning centres of ancient times, is now host to the Ivy League of terrorism,” she said in a memorable line.
India, however, had a setback in fighting terrorism as China continued to provide cover for Pakistan and for terrorists based there who are behind attacks on India.
Beijing blocked New Delhi’s request to have Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar, who was behind the attack on the Pathankot air force base, declared a terrorist by the Security Council committee that imposes sanctions on terrorists linked to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
This was to be expected of a Council that Akbaruddin had ridiculed as functioning in a “random mix of ad-hocism, scrambling and political paralysis”.
Attempts to reform the Council suffered another setback that directly hit India’s quest for a permanent seat on the high table.
The Inter-governmental Negotiations (IGN) on reforming the Council lost the momentum built up last year. The General Assembly decided in July to put off further negotiations on reforms to the next session after discussions spluttered. The new session that started in September has not yet taken it up.
This was despite 113 countries of the 122 that responded to an IGN survey in 2014 supported expanding the Council, according to Akbaruddin.
India’s cultural push included an exhibit, “Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals”, that depicted India’s tradition of openness that raised those who came as slaves to positions of power as rulers and military leaders.
The Second International Yoga Day was celebrated under the leadership of the Sadhguru at the UN in June with several hundred people, including Mogens Lykketoft, the president of the General Assembly, doing a round of asanas in front of the UN.
To celebrate Deepavali, the towering glass-fronted UN Secretariat was lit up with the image of a traditional lamp and “Happy Diwali” projected on it in letters several stories high.
Although not sponsored by India, an exhibition at the UN in September paid tributes to Mother Teresa, an Indian citizen by adoption, whose sisters work across the globe among the poor and the forgotten — even in New York where the UN headquarters is located.
On the climate change and economic fronts, India and France launched in April a solar finance programme with a potential to raise more than $1 trillion in investment for members of the International Solar Alliance.
A familial bond at the highest level for India came with election of the former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres as elected Secretary-General: His wife Catarina de Almeida Vaz Pinto was born in Goa.